Every time you turn around, someone’s hanging another Hakenkreuz on our Tay Tay. Latest and most famous culprit is Camille Paglia, that shooting star of the 1990s critical firmament. On Thursday this acerbic counter-feminist had a piece in the Hollywood Reporter in which she denounced Taylor Swift as a “Nazi Barbie” for swanning around with equally gorgeous female celebs. Almost immediately the story was picked up by The New Republic and New York magazine, as well as the NY Post, the Daily Mail, US magazine, and lord knows where else.
Right now the story has started its second lap, with The Daily Beast critiquing the public response to Paglia.
Now, wherefore this belief-beggaring ferocity, right before Taylor’s big birthday weekend? Paglia sort of explains it in a sidenote:
“Writing about Taylor Swift is a horrific ordeal for me because her twinkly persona is such a scary flashback to the fascist blondes who ruled the social scene during my youth,” she says.
Horrific ordeal! To which the only suitable response is, “Aww! Po’ widdle Camille!”
The essay itself is a short, throwaway deal. New York magazine describes it as “a Camille Paglia essay that reads like a parody of a Camille Paglia essay.”
It’s not really much of an attack on Taylor; its real target is the “girl squad,” that media-contrived phenomenon whereby we are served up endless images and stories about gorgeous models and actresses and singers who like to hang out together. Paglia singles out the Swift name apparently because that’s the moniker that will bring in the most eyeballs:
In our wide-open modern era of independent careers, girl squads can help women advance if they avoid presenting a silly, regressive public image — as in the tittering, tongues-out mugging of Swift’s bear-hugging posse. Swift herself should retire that obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props . . .
(The Daily Mail notes, helpfully: “Taylor Swift has no affiliation with the Nazi party . . .”)
Paglia’s priggish hatchet job is basically nothing more than trolling par excellence. It’s done to get headlines, provoke feedback and controversy, and maybe refurbish the Paglia brand. That marque was once stratospherically successful, like some $3500 Italian handbag everyone wanted 25 years ago . . . but which now is—let us say—a bit too loud and out-of-style.
“A humorless, lapel-grabbing fanatic”
If you haven’t thought much about Camille Paglia lately, here’s a refresher. Once upon a time she wrote this big book (Sexual Personae, 1990) that read like, and began as, a PhD dissertion formulated under the tutelage of Harold Bloom. Somehow the big book got a little attention, and in early 1991 got Camille a New York magazine cover story (written by onetime Yale fashion-plate and Bloom student, Francesca Stanfill). For the next few years, Paglia was lit-crit’s most visible talking head.
She had a good run and gave good value. Whatever subject you threw at her, Camille Paglia would field it with a tart, quotable sound-bite. Her critical insights weren’t so much original as outrageous; but she did have a very good line in contrarian poses and Chestertonian paradoxes.
The fact that her slim, chiseled figura was that of a 40ish lipstick-lesbian dreamboat didn’t hurt any, either—not back in those days (pre-Ellen, pre-Jane Lynch) when most public sapphists appeared to be ugly Jewesses or failed men.
A quick study and smart cookie, Paglia figured out the neat trick of buttering her bread on all sides. She won the hearts of men by saying things males couldn’t say, such as that women didn’t appreciate them enough and that most feminists were off their rockers. She particularly loved Oscar Wilde and the whole gay-male sensibility; anything, in fact, that was outré and transgressive.
She endeared herself to women by declaring herself a failed lesbian—she’d tried to be lez but didn’t really make the cut. Lesbians didn’t like her, she’d say, because of her contrary views. Conveniently enough this is what many lesbians like to think about themselves. And Paglia made purring sounds in favor of classical education, Christianity, family values.
In the words of Groucho Marx—”I think that covers everyone!”
Her first book got a cool reception when it came out in mid-1990. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Terry Teachout wrote, “[T]here is nothing intentionally funny about ‘Sexual Personae,’ which is all too clearly the work of a humorless, lapel-grabbing fanatic with a universal theory to hawk.” But the author’s eccentric bombast brought her attention, and she knew how to deploy it.
Her most famous, least credible pose was her gushing endorsement of the entertainer Madonna Ciccone as a great artist and thinker. This was the critical equivalent of George H. W. Bush’s vaunted addiction to fried pork rinds, and just as unforgettable. It defined Paglia’s public persona for years to come.
One of her first mainstream essays, just before she hit the Big Time, was a New York Times Op-Ed piece called “Madonna—Finally a Real Feminist” (December 14, 1990), wherein she praised Madonna’s risqué music video, “Justify My Love”:
The video is pornographic. It’s decadent. And it’s fabulous . . . “Justify My Love” is truly avant-garde, at a time when that word has lost its meaning in the flabby art world. It represents a sophisticated European sexuality of a kind we have not seen since the great foreign films of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
That over-the-top bonbon has all the earmarks of her style: it’s got porno (S/M actually—a Paglia fave), it’s got Low Art compared to High Art, it’s got elitism (“avant-garde”), it’s got that cultural cringe toward Europe (where they do sex better, because they’re grown-up about it).
Speaking of High vs. Low, you don’t have to think too hard to figure out why Paglia liked Madonna then and now doesn’t like Taylor Swift. There’s that ethnic thing, and the fact that Madonna used the same kind of provocative style as Paglia (yawp-jawed sexual talk, sacrilegious treatment of Christian icons and paraphernalia) to build her celebrity.
And then of course they are near-contemporaries—well, just a decade apart. Madonna arose in the ’80s and peaked in the ’90s. Camille was hot in the ’90s and faded in the oughts. They both imagine themselves to be still at cruising altitude, although their careers began their descent a long time ago, and the bulk of their audiences are the same old Boomers they had a quarter-century ago.
Madonna’s current Rebel Heart Tour has reportedly had trouble selling tickets. (The gross audience for her two 2015 shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden was 28,371; Taylor Swift’s single show at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands had 110,105.)
Meanwhile, Camille Paglia keeps thrusting and feinting at being outrageous, but people aren’t that interested. At one point, a year or two ago, she was claiming to be a “transgender being,” which seems a rather odd play for fresh ink—I mean considering you’re already Camille Paglia! If you look hard, you will see that she was using that “umbrella” T-term correctly—strictly speaking, it could include anybody—but this looked like grandstanding, because in popular understanding transgender has come to mean transsexual. Anyhow, when this didn’t excite the mobs, Paglia tacked the other way and told people how she hated “transgenderism” and how it was a symptom of Western “cultural collapse.” Alas, a hundred other people were already saying the same thing on this tiresome subject, so chalk up another colossal fail for our Camille.
If Paglia wants to get back in the spotlight, I suggest a far more honorable path. Why not bring out the second volume of Sexual Personae, which she assured us had already written when she published volume one 25 years ago?
Which brings us back to our Taylor . . .
Young Taylor Swift turns 26 today. (Go tweet her Happy Birthday @taylorswift13). Clean, wholesome, the Strength of America. Born in rural Pennsylvania and raised on a Christmas tree farm—seriously!
No cone-shaped bras or other Mediterranean slut-gear for our Tay; she does like to bare her midriff (good abs from those classes at the ModelFIT studio) but never-ever does she show her navel. A very odd entry indeed in the female pop-star tourney.
Her family moves to Nashville when she’s 14 to help enable her singing/songwriting career. (I don’t know about you, but my family wouldn’t cross the street to help my career, and I doubt Paglia’s was much nicer.) The Pennsylvania girl was quickly embraced as a teenage country star, and treated as the embodiment of healthy Southern values. Nice old Presbyterian ladies in Buckhead, sorority girls at SMU, UDC chapters in Richmond and Spartanburg—they all found out who Taylor was in jig time, and bought her records, followed her love life, learned the names of her cats. People of all ages who would never be fans of Lady Gaga or Madonna—let alone Amy Winehouse or Miley Cyrus—knew they could be Swifties and still be clean and decent folks.
That whole storyline must be so alien and off-putting to Camille Paglia—second-generation Italian from Upstate New York, fan of the Marquis de Sade, lesbian-in-recovery (or denial)—I imagine her in a state of steam-from-ears seething every time she sees a picture of Taylor Swift.
And there’s yet another aspect to Paglia’s animosity most people don’t want to get near, but of course I will. I’m talking about the whole issue of lesbianism, and how it has long been used as a default setting for women who doubt they can fully compete in the social arena.
Let’s say you’re 13, you’re a little tubby or odd-looking or bookish, and/or you’re not interested in clothes and makeup, and you can’t or won’t join up with the Popular Girls your age because all they want to talk about is makeup and booys . . . Well, you have several alternatives to choose from while keeping your self-respect (e.g., be a girl-jock; be a gymnast; be a ballerina if it’s not too late).
But the easiest, most obvious path is to become a tomboyish proto-lesbian. That’s the opt-out choice in the social and mating games.
I don’t know how many women will honestly identify with this story, but in my observation it’s a fairly common pattern. (And forget the coverall excuse of inborn sexual orientation; female sex drive is very plastic in adolescence, and girls have girl-crushes all the time without turning out gay.) From what Camille Paglia tells us, this is pretty much the road she took. And being self-aware, she tells us again and again it was possibly not the right road for her.
But the essential point here is that it still galls Paglia that there were pretty, Popular Girls in her pubescence, and somehow she was not one of them. “Fascist blondes” she now calls them, still rationalizing the choices she made in her youth by claiming the Popular Girls who hung out together were shallow, unambitious conformists. (Those grapes were sour anyway.) That’s what she sees when she looks at the Girl Squads, and the Squaddiest of the girls is Taylor.
1. Wikipedia: Rebel Heart Tour.
2. Wikipedia: The 1989 World Tour.